Having reviewed a goodly number of affordable products during the past year, I have been impressed and not a little surprised by the level of performance and musicality manufacturers have managed to offer for the budget conscious 'phile. However, nothing has stirred me as much as this indecently priced analogue rig from Pro-Ject. I'm going to cut to the chase here and simply state that I have never experienced this degree of musicality and emotional involvement for so little cost. It is a system so engaging, it defies you to pick it apart critically. Frankly, I found it extraordinarily difficult to put my reviewer's cap on at all. For less than CDN$1500, here is an analogue playback system that will blow anything digital out of the water at over twice the price. If you are one of those unfortunate souls who has never grooved to black plastic, locked away your vinyl in the attic or (perish the thought) tossed out all your LPs when "Perfect Sound Forever" hit the scene, it will bring tears to your eyes - I kid you not.

Even if you still play a small collection of vinyl via an older cheaper player such as a Technics or Pioneer, this Pro-Ject rig will be a revelation. While I admit to selling a good number of my own cherished LPs back in the early 90s, I kept around 200 as I just had too much of an emotional attachment to let them go. Am I ever glad that I didn't dump them. Predominantly for budget reasons, I have rarely felt the desire to purchase a more expensive rig and have been content listening to the odd LP via an old Thorens TD 316 with a NAD PP-1 phono stage. The sound is okay - nothing to get excited about. Besides, I generally listen to CD 95% of the time. Considering I am limited to what I can spend on audio equipment any given year, it just hasn't been a priority for me. Well, that strategy has certainly gone out the window. My interest in vinyl has mushroomed faster than a 10 megaton blast. In fact, my stack of new vinyl purchases far outstrips that of digital acquisitions. Now I find myself combing the Web and print mags to gaze at ads of analogue accessories such as mats and other doohickeys. There's something else, too. With all this fretting about RedBook competing with the so-called high-resolution formats of DVD-A and SACD, everyone has forgotten that we already have a high-resolution playback medium. It's called vinyl!

For the most part, vinyl sounds more open and natural to me. There's a greater sense of ease, a more natural flow to the music and greater rhythmic integrity. Digital has closed the gap in recent years but I doubt that all those 1s and 0s will ever display the exact same virtues as vinyl. The above was completely evident upon firing up the Pro-Ject as a lovely sense of ease and rhythmic integrity sprang forth. Music just breathed and flowed more naturally in a wide, deep and surprisingly three-dimensional soundscape. Music simply felt more real and life-like.

Soundstage depth was rendered to a far greater degree than any digital player I've heard to date. No particular genre of music fared better than any other. If I had to nitpick, I suppose the Pro-Ject leaned slightly to the soft and sweet side but I suspect a more expensive cartridge could redress that balance. Don't let the low price fool you - this deck is a capable and musical performer that could form the basis for an exceptional analogue playback rig. No particular part of the frequency spectrum stood out. It all seemed perfectly balanced and I was not troubled by a lack of bass or recessed highs. The exceptionally well-mastered reissue of the Buzzcocks' Singles Going Steady [4 Men With Beards 50]) was miles better than any CD version of this seminal album of angst. The Pro-Ject setup delivered the furious and whip-like speed and rhythm without any sign of protest. Granted, this is hardly an audiophile quality recording but the musical intent definitely came across.

Music projected far better and more dimensionally than most digital. For example, I have both the CD and LP versions of Ry Cooder's wonderful Paris, Texas soundtrack [Warner 92 52701] While the silver sliver was quiet and clean as a whistle, the presentation was flat and two-dimensional. The LP absolutely killed it in sheer envelopment and presence. Each note simply blossomed into my room rather than remain positioned behind the plane of my speakers. I could feel Ry's slide slipping up and down the fret board. Every little nuance was clearly audible. My father-in-law, a guitar player himself, laughed out loud when I compared the vinyl with the CD during a recent visit. Vinyl simply put more meat on the bones. Sure, the fifteen year-old slab of vinyl was a little noisy but the presentation was far more visceral, present and musically persuasive than the CD.

I suppose it would be a cliché to suggest the Tube Box had a warm glow to its presentation but that's exactly what I heard. Mind you, it wasn't overly warm and woolly. It just imparted a little caramel to the proceedings. It certainly made my NAD PP-1 phono stage sound broken and lifeless which shouldn't be too much of a surprise as the Tube Box is at least four times as expensive. I admit that the frequency extremes were somewhat rolled off. This probably isn't the most dynamic and lively preamp available but like the 1 Xpression, it is so well balanced, musical and involving that I wasn't conscious of any shortcomings at all during relaxed, non-critical listening. I think this is the key to designing affordable gear: Don't go for extremes, just offer balance across the frequency range, focus on getting the midrange right and most of all, zero in on delivering the musical message.

House of Love's untitled first album [Creation 836 275-1] displayed all the minor-key dulcet and wistful and brilliant song writing that initially caught my ear so many years ago. What is it about UK bands and their ability to create such bittersweet melancholic atmospherics? It must be the lousy weather. The achingly beautiful "Love in a Car' has to be one of the most extraordinary four minutes of Pop you will ever hear. With the Pro-Ject gear, I descended into a deep blue funk the likes of which I don't ever recall meeting before. Oh soooo blue.

Testament's fine re-issue of Ravel's Complete Orchestral Works [EMI Testament SAX 2476] with Andre Cluytens conducting the Societe des Concerts du Conservatoire demonstrated all of Ravel's spiky brilliance allied to a completely captivating ebb and flow, displaying all the aforementioned sonic virtues of analog playback.

It took me nearly three months before I experimented with the Speed Box to discern what effect, if any, it might have on playback. Truth be told, I really wasn't expecting much from this teeny weeny box and suspected I would not notice anything at all. Aye Caramaba! The wee Speed Box was a minor revelation. By removing the Speed Box and connecting the power supply directly to the 1 Xpression, the bass lost a significant degree of extension and fluidity. The mids and highs were slightly smeared and soundstage depth became shallower. Popping the Speed Box back into the chain made dynamics more incisive while the bass got back its extension and drive and the highs and mids smoothed out to become more defined and resolved. The sense of natural flow and drive simply increased. Could my AC suffer such voltage fluctuations as to cause such an effect simply on the motor that drives the platter? Even with a couple of thousand dollars of fancy power cables and AC conditioning, the Speed Box had a huge impact on playback. I guess the next time I spot ads for multi-buck turntable speed controllers, I won't react with a snide snicker anymore. Good grief, what more could the more expensive Speed Box SE possibly add?

This speed-controlled analog music playback possessed excellent definition, natural tonal balance and exciting dynamics with an uncanny sense of involvement that made it difficult to switch back to digital. There were some ticks, pops and audible surface noise but none of it intruded upon my listening enjoyment. I did not expect complete silence at this price point yet was frankly surprised just how quiet the Pro-Ject setup was. I didn't once suspect that I was missing anything nor was the presentation in any way hifi-ish or overly analytical unlike digital which can often put music under a microscope.

So what do we have here? Is this the best analogue playback system? Don't be silly. However, this setup hides whatever shortcomings so admirably, you'd be hard pressed to notice. I was so smitten with the Pro-Ject setup, I did not
at all feel a need or desire to explore a more expensive rig. Such an uncanny balance is a sure sign of a truly amazing product.

I suppose proper audio reviewer decorum should cause me to temper my rather enthusiastic assessment of the 1 Xpression and its companions with the knowledge that more expensive options will offer greater insight and resolution. I suppose if you are one of those 'philes who is obsessed with sound, you will probably pick out faults and look elsewhere. But if you are like me and crave music, this Pro-Ject system will take you to the Promised Land for far less than you thought possible or necessary to spend.
Pro-Ject website
US distributor website